Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Advice for legal historians on the entry-level law market: Part III

For the past months I've been offering tidbits of advice (earlier posts are here and here) for legal historians seeking entry-level law teaching jobs. These are based on my own very limited experience, but also on the wise counsel I received from mentors and colleagues. Tim Zinnecker's Faculty Lounge post on AALS interviews (a.k.a. the "meat market") reminded me that it's time for the latest installment.

Here goes: during AALS interviews and after, you will encounter many situations in which you'll be asked to talk about your scholarship -- from an informal hallway encounter to an intense one-on-one office interview to the job talk itself.  Practice giving responses of appropriate length and detail.  For example, your hallway encounter will require a one- or two-sentence response, ideally something pithy and memorable.  The opening minutes of a group interview, something a bit longer.  Say you're at a lunch interview.  Be prepared to give a five-minute version of your job talk while everyone else is eating their soup.  It's hard to predict when or how the question will come up, so prepare yourself to take advantage of every opportunity.

If you have no one to practice on, write these responses out. Think not only about how you would describe the general topic or problem, but about your argument, your method, and, as Mary has put it, your project's "cash out value."  This preparation will help you sound polished and professional, and also allow you to set the stage for a productive conversation about your work.

I'm underscoring this common piece of advice because, in my experience, putting it into practice is harder than it looks.  Clear, concise oral communication is a skill that historians certainly value, but that I didn't learn in my own history coursework. As a law student, I practiced communicating with clarity and precision, but looking back, I was often reiterating someone else's argument: I was playing the role of a particular justice, litigant, or legal theorist, not describing my own research or articulating original ideas.

The takeaway is this: no matter how much thought you've put into your research project, don't assume that explaining it to others will be easy, or that you'll figure it out as you go. What has worked for you in other contexts (say, a history conference) won't necessarily work in this context. Practice now, preferably with legal scholars of various backgrounds and scholarly orientations. It will be time well spent.

Readers, do you have other advice for legal historians gearing up for their AALS interviews?